One immediate question that comes to mind when discussing social media is, “Clearly there are risks of engaging in online networking, so what are the benefits?” The reality is that the power of online networking is part of why it is becoming increasingly popular. Although physicians as a group could be considered somewhat risk-averse, more and more doctors are finding these tools beneficial. The benefits of online professional networking are many and are primarily centered around sharing information in a knowledge ecosystem. Additionally, these tools can level the playing field for doctors in rural or underserved areas by more rapidly and deeply disseminating modern-day techniques, thought processes, and knowledge-based insights.
With Internet-based tools, physicians are no longer limited by geography, specialty, and time zone in their attempts to connect, engage, and learn from with each other. Historically, networking took place at conferences, doctors’ lounges, or in the hallways of medical practices. However, this form of networking has limited boundaries and confines us to a small social circle. Using more agile mobile platforms, physicians are now able to communicate across all sectors without restriction of type of practice, specialty/subspecialty, or years of experience. Whether you are a key opinion leader, a young solo practitioner in a rural town, or an academician in a large, multispecialty group, doctors are finding more and more reasons to connect online, either in open forums or in private, physician-only, professional networks like Sermo and OrthoMind.
There are many advantages to surgeons using online professional networks that fall into one of three categories: these powerful platforms can save time, improve patient care, and advance the practice of orthopaedic surgery. Much of the benefit revolves around preserving one of the surgeon’s most precious assets: time. Sharing ideas of patient management, clinical pearls, and discussing new technology facilitate more rapid and efficient dissemination of information.
Using professional networking tools to aggregate research data in journal readers and research scanners can save surgeons time in keeping current with the peer-reviewed literature. This allows news and scientific publication to become active and interactive instead of the traditional “read-only” formats. The aggregation and search tools developed in OrthoMind can regularly scan the literature for useful articles and deliver to surgeons any relevant research articles that match their specific interests.
Professional networking sites can also improve the practice of orthopaedic surgery in tangible ways through better time and information management. Surgeons can poll each other and get immediate feedback and opinions. This shortens feedback cycles compared with conventional surveys and market research efforts [16
A substantial functional advantage to orthopaedic surgeons comes in the ability of these sites to lessen the burden of trying to keep up with the plethora of meetings. One more powerful aspect of social media tools may be best realized in this context of continuing medical education. Physicians who were unable to attend meetings can get insights from their peers who did attend. Colleagues at the meetings are able to post comments, feedback, and insights into a site for other surgeons to read and respond.
The facilitation of early detection of noteworthy events is one of the most compelling ways professional networking sites can enhance patient care. Doctors sharing their personal experiences with complications or adverse events allows earlier identification of potential pitfalls in medical devices or techniques. Aggregating smaller observations informs the community in a drastically shortened feedback cycle, potentially preventing patient morbidity. Such early detection may also limit liability exposure for surgeons and the medical device industry alike.
Collaboration on challenging cases is one of the hallmark benefits of professional networking sites. Complex issues often arise in the scope of practice and being able to connect with another doctor who has had a similar experience or being able to query a key opinion leader can be very valuable. In OrthoMind, as an example, several subject matter experts have opined in cases submitted by peers. Social media tools can connect private practices with academic institutions, consolidate alumni networks, and merge experiences from different centers of excellence. More experienced physicians share insights so that less experienced physicians do not have to reinvent the wheel.
In specialty-specific sites, physicians share business acumen and best-in-class practice management strategies. Surgeons are also able to collaborate strategically on operations, staffing, overhead, and financial planning. In conventional paradigms, solo practitioners have had to rely on their own experiences in screening and rating products and services. In an aggregated virtual group collaboration, however, physicians in small groups can enjoin their peers to leverage economies of scale and potentially negotiate more favorable goods and services.
An important role of such networks is in reducing risk. Risk management has long had a tendency to emphasize the soft issues such as medical records keeping, communications, or systems deficiencies rather than the more difficult or issues, poor patient outcomes related to new technologies/marketing, indications for surgery, detection and management of complications, and diagnostic errors. Closed practice networks offer an opportunity to frankly address issues that can reduce poor patient outcomes that lead to malpractice claims.
Although the list of benefits is too long to be fully covered in this article, we cannot overlook one of the most compelling values of all: networking. These sites facilitate networking around the doctor’s self-specified interests, be they clinical, political, or academic. Networking around charitable initiatives in these sites has notably enhanced surgeons’ abilities to provide humanitarian aid in underserved areas.